Tuesday, July 07, 2015

The Town that Dreaded Sundown—Still Not Loving the Moonlight

Texarkana is hard to figure. Is it Texas or Arkansas? One town of two? Either way, you would think it was far too heavily armed to have a serial killer problem. Nevertheless, the “Phantom Killer” really did terrorize Texarkana for several months in 1946. There must have been a post-war shortage of ammunition. Eventually, the murders stopped, but strictly speaking, the case was never solved. In 1976, the so-called “Moonlight Murders” were rather controversially dramatized in Charles B. Pierce’s cult favorite slasher movie. The fascination and the killings continue in Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s meta-homage pseudo-sequel (don’t call it a reboot) The Town that Dreaded Sundown (trailer here), a Blumhouse production, which releases today on regular DVD.

So maybe the killer is still walking the streets of Texarkana. If so, what would he make of the burg’s annual Halloween drive-in screening of Pierce’s original Town that Dreaded Sunrise? Apparently, he rather resents it, judging from comments made to Jami Lerner and Corey Holland when he viciously attacks them during a moment of parked privacy. Holland quickly exits the picture, but the Phantom lets Lerner live in order to torment her like a cat with a mouse.

The killer quickly starts working his way through the murders in the 1976 film. However, Lerner is convinced she also must look to the archival case files from 1946 to discover the identity of the current murder. Of course, the local cops on both the Texas and Arkansas sides are clueless, but at least Texas Ranger Lone Wolf Morales inspires some confidence, just like Ben Johnson’s J.D. Morales, who was molded after the historical M.T. “Lone Wolf” Gonzaullas.

There are times when the 2014 Town is surprisingly clever in the ways it engages with both the previous film and the real life Moonlight Murders. Unfortunately, a lot of good set-up is essentially wasted on a third act revelation that feels like no big deal. We are primed for something uber-meta, but get watered-down Scream elements instead.

Still, there is a vivid sense of place (much of the film was shot in Louisiana, but that’s close enough). Gomez-Rejon is often quite visually inventive in his approach to the material and cinematography Michael Goi gives is all a dark glow that is eerie and somewhat Carpenter-esque. There is also plenty of fan service for Pierce partisans, including a trombone murder. Indeed, the film is often quite brutal, matching the tone set by its predecessor, so sensitive viewers should be warned.

Perhaps due to producer Ryan “American Horror Story” Murphy’s involvement, the new Town features an unusually accomplished cast for a slasher flick. Frankly, it is a pity Anthony Anderson does not have more screen time, because he is a drolly entertaining as the flamboyant Morales. In one of his final screen appearances, the late great Ed Lauter is also frustratingly under-employed as Sheriff Underwood. Addison Timlin is perfectly fine as Lerner, but it is not exactly a deep, empowering role. However, Denis O’Hare undeniably steals his scenes as the meta Charles Pierce, Jr.

It is easy to see why Pierce’s film freaked people out in 1976. It came out when many residents still recalled the Moonlight Murders and it predated the masked Jason in the Friday the 13th franchise by over three years. Pierce’s hooded Phantom might have also had further historical resonance for viewers, especially in Texas and Arkansas. Gomez-Rejon’s take starts out quite creepily, but it deflates late in the third act. (Still, it is a good deal more uplifting than his latest film: Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl. Oh, the horror. Oh, the humanity.) Recommended for hardcore slasher fans and Pierce loyalists, The Town that Dreaded Sundown releases today (7/7) on regular DVD.